Review: Metallica NEC, Birmingham

What can you do with heavy metal? Apart from turning it down, that is. You can wear tight trousers and long hair. You can play shrill, fiddly guitar solos which go on and on without ever really getting anywhere, like the M25. And in between doing that, you can punch the air. But really - what can you actually do with heavy metal?

It's a question that has clearly vexed Metallica, who have suddenly become the biggest in the business (haven't you noticed that their T-shirts are the leisure wear du jour of angry 11- to 18-year-olds?). In an effort to jazz up the staid conventions of live metal, the band have cut their hair. Almost as drastically, they rearranged the Birmingham NEC for the start of their UK tour last weekend. The main floor was largely given over to a figure of eight into which were set two sprawling stages. Around each stage stood a forest of lighting rigs, shaped like scorpions' tails, which occasionally arched over the band as if closing in for the kill.

Oh yes, the band. Let's not forget them. For as they strove to give their gargantuan songs an appropriate physical form, there was always the possibility that they might be consumed by their own ingenuity. Things did, indeed, look a bit desperate as it became clear that the twin-stage situation had doubled rather than minimised the old problem of what, if anything, a band should do while playing. Now there were two stages on which Metallica could not know what, if anything, they should be doing while playing.

For what it's worth, they ran around a lot, particularly James, the grizzled front man, and the only one who really looks capable of sacrificing small animals and using their skins as underwear, or whatever it is that heavy metallers get accused of these days. So they ran around the stage. Then they ran around the other one. At one point, all four of them had magically switched stages. Good job they've got the songs for when you start tiring of all that David Copperfield nonsense.

It feels rather inadequate to just call them songs. They are too big for that. "Blazing vistas of inestimable girth and passion" is probably nearer the mark. Admittedly, a medley of early material betrays less musical innovation than you'd find in one of Peter Andre's pecs. But with their homonymous 1991 album, Metallica discovered something indispensable: tunes. And emotion. When the band ploughed into "Nothing Else Matters", the head- banging hard nut in front of me had trouble keeping his bottom lip in check. Quite right. These songs linger in your ears long after the painful ringing has subsided.

But if Metallica broke most of the rules surrounding the heavy-metal show, there was one they adhered to: that it must all end in flames. It did, in a finale of quite dazzling wit and duplicity that it would be mean to reveal. Suffice to say that it proves Metallica are cleverer than you would ever give them credit forn

Ryan Gilbey